EXCLUSIVE: New A-League franchise Melbourne Heart should explore Victoria’s Gippsland region as a pipeline for supporters and talented young players, says one former Gippsland Falcons NSL player.
With the new A-League club stating its intention to embrace the entire Victorian state ahead of their debut later this year, Manny Gotis - a defender with Gippsland Falcons in the old NSL club - said the area is crying out to be harnessed for Melbourne's A-League's new boys.
Gotis said Melbourne Victory have squandered promotional opportunities in the area over the last five years; all the more surprising given Victory's marquee man Archie Thompson got his senior career start at Falcons Park and has family links with the area.
Now, with Melbourne's new A-League franchise and with crowds down and a talent pool shrinking, Gotis believes there is enough football passion and players for Heart to use to their advantage.
"Very rarely do I see Melbourne Victory up here doing promotions. And when you consider that Archie spent many years up here and married a local girl, I would've thought they could've marketed themselves a bit stronger," Gotis told au.fourfourtwo.com.
"Overall, Victory probably don't do enough, even just bringing a game up here. The stadium, the grandstand and the pitch is still there and up to scratch."
Melbourne Victory told au.fourfourtwo.com today that their next run of country roadshows will happen after the World Cup. That means Heart has a potential six month free run in country Victoria to boost their new support base.
It's estimated around 2-3000 local players turn out in the region's various local competitions. And Falcons' old stadium in Morwell is still intact, according to Gotis, with local offshoot club Falcons 2000 SC now using the boutique stadium (capacity around 12,000) as their base in the Gippsland Soccer competition.
"If Melbourne Heart do it right [in a marketing sense] they'll do really well. By liaising with us up here, it creates competition for the two Melbourne A-League clubs which is healthy," said Gotis.
Gippsland and surrounding areas are popular with tourists with a population of around 250,000. It's roughly two hours' drive from Melbourne's new rectangular stadium - the home of Melbourne Heart - and is also accessible by train.
"Gippsland lost their NSL history yet it still lives with players continuing to play [in the A-League]," said Gotis, who also played local league Aussie Rules.
"Falcons would've survived in the A-League if they had've been organised."
Former Morwell Falcons and Pegasus junior John Hutchinson has carved out a respected A-League career with Central Coast Mariners and is now an international for Malta. He recently played against Portugal in a World Cup qualifier lining up alongside some of the world's biggest stars.
And Perth Glory's Naum Sekulovski played for the club from 1999 to 2000 while W-League championship-winning coach Jeff Hopkins (currently with Brisbane Roar) moved to Australia over a decade ago to join Gippsland in the NSL.
But more impressively, at international level, the regional club has a strong lineage. Vying for spots in the Socceroo World Cup squad are former Falcons players Thompson, Eugene Galekovic and Scott McDonald.
If Galekovic and Thompson are selected for the Socceroos on Wednesday night against Kuwait, Gotis will be watching on with pride. Of the Reds keeper, he said: "He played one game against Northern Spirit and I said, 'This kid's going to be a star'.
"He was a bit chubby, that was my worry, he was like a little teddy bear. But he was a natural and was likable. Natural talent-wise, he was as good as anyone. He never had a big head, very respectful - my type of guy.
"My only reservation was he was too quiet."
And you can add to that international list Singapore. Former Falcons hardman Alex Duric played at Falcons Park in the 1990s but has since been a hit with his adopted nation Singapore, adding another layer to this seemingly forgotten Victorian football region.
"Back then they were a very powerful club. And we've got a lot of smashing juniors still but now they're robbed of the opportunities," said Gotis.
After winning the Victorian state league in the 1980s, Falcons joined the NSL in 1992. In its heyday, Falcons would pull around 5000 fans to home games against city rival South Melbourne but success was hard to come by and less than a decade after joining the national competition, they folded.
For former fans and players wanting to reminisce there is a Facebook group called "I Supported Morwell/Gippsland Falcons". It's at www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=5992668298 .
Gotis added he was disappointed that his former club - which changed its name from Morwell to Gippsland Falcons in 1996 to associate themselves more with Victoria's La Trobe Valley region and rather bizarrely to Eastern Pride just before folding - never made it to the A-League bidding stage.
But at least with Melbourne Heart, the region and its football fans and players may find a city club it can embrace - even if they might never have an A-League team of their own.
Gotis added: "From a regional point of view, it would've been great because you'd have had one club in Melbourne and one regional.
"But after we folded a lot of the younger kids were picked up and good on them. They've done well. They had to give Archie [Thompson] away. We created all these kids - and got fuck-all for it in the end."